VCU student Micah Davenport speaks with presidential contender Marco Rubio.

In New Hampshire, students enjoy inside access to presidential primary — and grab a few selfies with Clinton, Rubio and other contenders

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At a town hall meeting this month in Milford, New Hampshire, Virginia Commonwealth University marketing major Micah Davenport had the opportunity to ask Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio his thoughts on college tuition and student debt.

“It was cool to talk to him one-on-one and [get clarification on] what he was saying,” Davenport said. “I asked whether he was going to focus on making loans easier to obtain or whether he would focus on reducing the cost of tuition. He said both.”

Davenport was among 27 VCU students who traveled to New Hampshire during winter break to get a firsthand look at the New Hampshire presidential primary as part of a VCU political science course, Political Campaigns and Communication. The course was designated as a service-learning course through the Service-Learning Office in the Division of Community Engagement at VCU.

The coolest part for the students is getting to see people that you normally just see on your television screen.

The class, led by Alexandra Reckendorf, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, provided students from across VCU with an opportunity to learn about strategy and modern campaigning from national political leaders and insiders.

“The coolest part for the students is getting to see people that you normally just see on your television screen,” Reckendorf said. “It’s particularly interesting to see them engaging in a town hall forum, rather than on a debate stage. Because some of them have completely different personalities when they are trying, on a debate stage, to get a few words in, especially the lower-tier candidates. Then they have a different personality when it’s at a town hall, which is a more intimate gathering and they can really engage in a more nuanced fashion.”

At various events across the state, VCU students attended town halls featuring nearly every candidate, questioning Chris Christie about veterans’ benefits, Carly Fiorina about Planned Parenthood and John Kasich about student loans. They snagged a few selfies with Hillary Clinton, Rubio and nearly every other candidate; attended a Clinton rally featuring Lena Dunham from HBO’s “Girls”; and even got interviewed by The Boston Globe.

VCU student Layla Amarir with Hillary Clinton.
VCU student Layla Amarir with Hillary Clinton.

“Beyond the celebrity of politicians — like, ‘Oh my, I just got a selfie with a famous politician,’ and they did get a lot of selfies with famous politicians — they also had the opportunity to get a look at the candidates’ nuanced policy positions that they can’t get from just watching a debate or just watching a 60-second ad,” Reckendorf said.

At the Rubio rally, for example, Davenport’s question about college tuition and student loan debt prompted Rubio to tell her about his proposal to create student-investment plans that would allow private investors to pay a student’s tuition in exchange for a percentage of that student’s future income over a set period of time. He also told her about his support for the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which would provide prospective students with data for comparing colleges based on cost, graduation rates and potential earnings.

Davenport said she thought his student investment plan sounded innovative, but she is skeptical the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” would make much difference in college costs and student debt.

“Not completely satisfied with his solutions but knowing that he knew the burden of student debt — considering he had only recently paid off his — gave me some sense that he could relate,” she said.

The highlight of the trip for Paris Henderson, a senior political science major, was getting the chance to meet Hillary Clinton and speak with her.

“My phone was dead at the time so I wasn't able to keep this memory with a picture but it turned out a classmate captured the moment on his phone,” she said. “I had the opportunity to visit the University of Arkansas where Mrs. Clinton taught and she was the creator of their legal clinic and I was able to share that with her.”

Henderson said that seeing both the GOP and Democratic campaigns up close underscored her love of the political process.

“Although there is a Democratic Party and a Republican Party, at the end they both want the same thing — the promises provided by the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and that is what makes this country great,” she said. “We’re able to voice dissent and agreement without fear of persecution, a freedom not afforded to many, especially not [to] women.”

Jessica Diaz with Jim Gilmore, former Virginia governor and Republican presidential hopeful.
Jessica Diaz with Jim Gilmore, former Virginia governor and Republican presidential hopeful.

As part of a service-learning component of the trip, the students volunteered with the various campaigns, assembling yard signs, calling potential voters and knocking on doors.

“I learned a lot about how campaigns are run and what type of volunteer work is essential to campaigns,” said Jessica Diaz, a junior double-majoring in history and political science. “I was able to make yard signs, phone bank and canvas for different campaigns as part of my service learning, which was awesome for getting to do hands-on work and participate in an experiential-learning class.”

Volunteering with Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Littleton was the highlight for Diaz.

“We got to volunteer for [VCU alumnus and Sanders field organizer] Kevin Lata,” she said. “It was a cool experience to see a VCU student in action, using his political science degree working for a presidential campaign in New Hampshire. We also got to canvas in the neighborhoods in Littleton, which was nice because it was something new. The town was really beautiful, which just brought it all together for me.”

By volunteering with more than one campaign, the students had the rare opportunity to compare and contrast the various approaches to campaigning, Reckendorf said.

“For the most part, the campaigns had the students volunteer by doing phone banking — doing the same kind of questioning of [possible voters as canvassing door-to-door] and doing the same kind of trying to persuade them, but instead doing it out of the comfort of a dingy old office.

“The Trump campaign headquarters was, in my opinion, by far the nicest. One of the students who volunteered for Trump was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’

“That student volunteered with Rand Paul and Trump,” said Reckendorf. “He was like, ‘Man, it’s so different. With Rand Paul, you have to use your own phone or one of their little phones. But then you go to Trump’s, and there’s a table with really nice iPads and then on the iPads they have a specific app that automatically takes you through a script, rather than having to fumble through a bunch of paper.’ So yeah, apparently the Donald Trump campaign knows where it’s at!”

Also as part of the trip, the students attended a college student convention hosted by New England College. It featured town halls by many of the candidates, as well as breakout sessions on topics such as the Second Amendment, foreign policy and the federal budget.

“In the federal budget session, they broke the students into groups, gave them a mock budget and said, ‘OK, you think you’re so smart — go ahead and make the cuts. See how easy it really is,’” Reckendorf said.

Other sessions focused on campaigning, with topics such as why New Hampshire’s primary is first in the nation and how the news media influences the primary.

The class also visited with the editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, top New Hampshire political party officials, state officials overseeing the primary and several different campaign offices to gain an understanding of how field organizing works.

“So the candidates weren’t there, but we got to speak with the people who actually run their ground operations,” Reckendorf said. “We went to the Clinton campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign and Martin O’Malley’s campaign, and we spoke with Rand Paul’s college outreach sector of his campaign. A few students also visited Jeb Bush’s campaign.”

The trip was supported by contributions by author David Baldacci, a 1983 political science alumnus; Bob Hansan, a 1986 political science alumnus, and the Hansan Family Foundation; and VCU Board of Visitors member Bob Holsworth, Ph.D., a former VCU faculty member and former dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

For Davenport, the experience was an incredible opportunity to have a front row seat to the New Hampshire primary.

“I never imagined I would get such opportunities and am stoked beyond belief to have gone on this trip,” she said. “This is going to be my first presidential election and the fact that I got to ask questions and hear candidates speak so that they could vie for my vote was just amazing.”

For more on the experiences of the VCU students’ visit to the “first in the nation” primary state, go to their website, Havoc in New Hampshire, at:

This is going to be my first presidential election and the fact that I got to ask questions and hear candidates speak so that they could vie for my vote was just amazing.

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